As a mother, I was a dud at shopping expeditions. For many of my women friends, wandering around boutiques with their daughters, searching out outfits and party dresses, was a bonding exercise. Not for me. I still find shopping as boring as doing the income tax. I wasn't much better at sports, aside from signing up my kids for swimming lessons and ensuring they could paddle a canoe, kick a soccer ball, and escape into the wilderness via overnight camps in the summer.
My forte was reading. In fact, I loved it so much that for years I wrote a children's book column, revelling in the joys of Frog and Toad, Miss Rumphius, Zoom at Sea, and The Hockey Sweater. Bedtime stretched elastically while my kids and I devoured classics, including Narnia – all seven volumes – The Dark is Rising and Little House on the Prairie.
I was such an avid reader that a few times I was condemned by a self-righteous offspring, who had gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom and inadvertently caught me in the nefarious act of "reading ahead." Reading is still my default mode when kids are sad, bored or rambunctious. It is one of the activities I most anticipated about becoming a grandmother.
Much of my love of reading aloud is based on nostalgia – I want to relive the enchantment with another generation. I was determined to read E.B. White's Charlotte's Web with my granddaughters because I can still remember my son, aged about five, coming home downcast from school some 30 years ago.
"Something terrible happened today," he told me. "Charlotte died."
We both cried. And then we cuddled up with a paperback copy of Charlotte's Web, to relive the story about the brilliant spider who saves the life of Wilbur the ordinary pig who's due to be butchered come Christmas. We reread the last reassuring chapter in which the heartbroken Wilbur finds solace after Charlotte's death by eulogizing her to generations of her sons and daughters – the ones who choose to stay in the barnyard, spinning their webs in the doorway. Life goes on.
Lots of books for children – like the tedious Winnie-the-Pooh – are hierarchical and presume that humans are superior beasts. Charlotte's Web is different. The writing is unsentimental, the pastoral setting is universal and the animals are sentient. They inhabit a complete world in which they love and suffer, feel joy and loss, and negotiate deals and concessions with the other creatures – the way we humans do.
I wanted to introduce the girls to wise Charlotte, Wilbur, a.k.a. "some pig," the stuttering goose, the sheep, Templeton the nefarious rat, and Fern the little girl who adopts Wilbur because he is the runt of the litter. Through reading aloud, I hoped to share White's life lessons with them about treasuring friendship and loyalty, experiencing joy, coping with suffering and loss and celebrating the power of words. So, while we were all at the cottage last summer, I hauled out my tattered paperback version of Charlotte's Web.
What I hadn't anticipated was how complicated reading time can be in a crowded space with three generations, plus visitors. The girls' baby brother wanted to sit on my lap while I read, squealing in delight as he pulled out the loose pages as soon as I turned them. Their older cousin, who had watched a video of Charlotte's Web, shrieked, "I know how it ends," and had to be persuaded to keep mum. There were so many interruptions that we had barely finished reading about Wilbur's sudden fame as a wonder and a miracle when it was time for them to return to the city.
That's when I realized that "to be continued" is a hope not a promise for grandparents. For most of us, sleepovers are the exception not the norm – and believe me, I am okay with that – but I miss the routine of the nightly reading ritual I savoured with my now grown kids.
Over the winter, I have invited the girls for a couple of sleepovers, minus the adorable distraction of their little brother, so we could finish reading a specially purchased hardcover copy of Charlotte's Web. We still haven't gotten beyond Charlotte weaving TERRIFIC into her web.
Frustrated, I succumbed to "reading ahead" last night and went to bed with my brand-new copy of the book. After reading again that famous opening sentence: " 'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast," I was hooked. As with any great literary work, I discovered new things in the rereading. The book hasn't changed, but I have. This time, I noticed that the discerning observers are the farm women. They – not the men – are the ones who realize that the spider, the creature we so often fear, is the genius.
The early 1950s, when White wrote Charlotte's Web, wasn't a feminist age, but White has imbued his book with a message about the power of women not just as nurturers but as executives. My granddaughters may already know that intuitively, but there is still plenty else for them to savour in Charlotte's Web. We will try again next summer – when they are six. Meanwhile, who's to know I'm reading ahead?